Making the Masters: The Tournament and the City of Augusta

Here is Part 2 of highlights from my recently published book, Making the Masters: Bobby Jones and the Birth of America’s Greatest Golf Tournament (Skyhorse Publishing), this time focusing on the relationship between the Masters and the city of Augusta in the early days. For Part 1 on the background of the site of Augusta National, click here.

Winter Destination: In the first few decades of the 20th century, Augusta was a winter destination for wealthy Northeasterners. A big reason that Clifford Roberts, then a New York investment banker who had spent some time in Augusta himself, suggested to Bobby Jones that he build his dream golf club there was that well-heeled winter visitors could form the core of a national membership. Jones agreed, in part because Augusta was warmer than his hometown of Atlanta in the winter due to lower elevation, resulting not only in more playing opportunities but better course conditions.

The Emperor Arrives: Augusta was thrilled that Jones chose its city to build his club. The great amateur was a revered figure after he capped a spectacular career by winning the Grand Slam in 1930, and nowhere was he more revered than in the pages of the Augusta Chronicle. In various articles, he was called “king of the links for probably all time,” “the modest young man whose honors have not spoiled him in the slightest,” “who has been to golf what Babe Ruth is to baseball,” and, naturally, “Emperor Jones,” which was his popular nickname. Prominent citizens and, especially, the Chronicle hailed the new course, proclaiming that it made Augusta the nation’s “winter golf capital.”

City Funding:The city was receptive to the idea of giving financial support to the Masters because it viewed the expenditure as advertising for Augusta in tournament reports appearing prominently in newspapers across the country. The notion was that it would plant the seed in people’s minds that Augusta was a good place to go in the winter. Augusta National needed $10,000 from the city to hold the first Masters in 1934; otherwise the tournament never would have gotten off the ground because of the club’s financial difficulties that left it unable to even pay its construction bills. After the City Council came through with the money, the Chronicle wrote in an editorial, “The entire community, once it realizes what this golf event is going to mean for the development of this city as a winter resort, and with huge sums of money expended here every year that is now going to Pinehurst, Miami, Palm Beach, and other places will applaud City Council for its splendid attitude.”

Rice’s Wrong Number: In addition to the advertising value, Augusta expected to reap the financial benefits of the influx of people coming into town to watch the Masters. Famed sports writer Grantland Rice, an Augusta National member, gave a pie-in-the-sky estimate that the tournament would bring 20,000 people to Augusta, accounting for about $1 million in spending. The tournament actually only drew about 1,000 spectators a day. But the Chronicle and mayor Thomas Barrett promptly forgot Rice’s estimate—even though the paper had published it countless times—and proclaimed the tournament a success, which indeed it was by the standards of the times.

Unpaid Bill: The City of Augusta was one of Augusta National’s creditors. In May of 1933, the city agreed to turn an outstanding water bill of $2,282.82 into a note payable due the following February 1, with the proviso that the club pay its ongoing water bills until then in cash. But the club was unable to pay the note when it came due. So when the city approved funding of $7,500 for the second Masters it kept $2,500 as payment for the overdue water bill, leaving Augusta National with $5,000—half as much as a year before.

Roberts Gambit: After the 1935 tournament, Roberts wrote a letter to mayor Richard Allen complaining about the cut in funding and essentially threatening not to hold another Masters “if there is to be any question about a substantial sum being made available by the city or its agency.” It didn’t go over too well. The city didn’t approve funding until January of 1936, and then for only $7,500. The club didn’t announce the tournament until after the money was approved, less than three months before the start of the event. The tone of Roberts’ letter must not have gone over too well—in the announcement Roberts wasn’t listed with any role in running the 1936 tournament (though he undoubtedly had one).

Well Runs Dry: After three years, there was increasing opposition in city government to funding an apparently successful tournament run by a private club. One opponent threatened to enjoin City Council if money were appropriated for the Masters, his objection being that Augusta National had never submitted any report to the city about how the money had been used. A request for funding was never brought to a vote. Not one to give up easily, Roberts (by now back in his public role as tournament and club chairman) made another request the next year, but that one was swatted away by Mayor Allen. The days of Augusta helping to fund the Masters were over.

Business Men’s Boost: The focus for the first five years of the tournament was on attracting winter visitors as spectators. Somebody finally had the bright idea of marketing the Masters to the locals in 1939—and that somebody wasn’t from Augusta National. Local businessman Alvin M. McAuliffe recognized what a good thing Augusta had in the Masters and realized the community could play a role in the tournament’s health. He formed the Business Men’s Masters Tournament Association for the purpose of selling Masters tickets through local businesses. By its second year, the association was credited with having doubled ticket sales, which had declined from 1934 to 1938. The locals had saved the tournament’s bacon.

End of an Era: While it boasted of being a “winter golf capital,” in retrospect Augusta latched onto the Masters so enthusiastically because it arrived just at a time when the city was fading as a destination. The Depression meant there were fewer people with the wherewithal to travel—and with transportation improving those who did travel were increasingly heading to Florida, where the climate was more conducive to winter golf (the average January high in Augusta is 58 degrees, the average overnight low 33). By the late 1930s, Augusta was trying to position itself as a stopover on the way back north for those who wintered in Florida. That didn’t work, either. By World War II, Augusta’s days as a winter destination were over, one of its main hotels (Forrest Hills) requisitioned by the Army for use as a hospital and the other (the Bon Air) having gone bankrupt in 1937, starting a 27-year period when it tried to stay afloat as a year-round hotel but was sold nine times and went bankrupt three times before being turned into a senior living facility.

Who Needs Resort Hotels?: The city can look back on the $25,000 it contributed to the Masters in 1934 to 1936 as a brilliant investment. While it didn’t save Augusta as a winter destination, the Masters grew into a major spectacle that draws a huge influx of visitors for one week a year—visitors who spend a lot of money in the city, including many who rent houses for the week. The decision to locate Bobby Jones’ club in Augusta was a fortuitous one for the city, which has made the most of it.

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